Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Alison Elliott, James Carville, Tom Aldredge, Pat Healy, Nick Cave.
Narrator: Hugh Ross.
In 2000, director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the scene with low-budget but powerful biographical film “Chopper” about Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. It not only heralded the arrival of actor Eric Bana but also a new an uncompromising director. For his second feature he tackled another biographical feature about one of the wild west’s most notorious gunslingers and this time, Dominik took his uncompromising nature even further.
Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded – either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.
Few film’s ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That’s testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik’s vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film’s style is apparent. It’s sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don’t shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik’s direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience’s sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities – including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between ‘the man and the myth‘. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I’m not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters’ motivations. There’s a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn’t quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it’s unclear why he’d open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men’s lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik’s original 4 hour cut – that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it’s 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it’s not far off it.
A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It’s highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it’s beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it’s just a tad too long winded.